Monday, March 25, 2013

Reflections on culture: School Performances

I realize that many of my recent posts have been rather on the "fluff" side.  So I thought I'd venture into the subject of culture.  I realize this is a rather larger topic, with potential to irritate readers.  But I feel a bit irritated, so you can join me.  I'm going to focus in on what I've perceived as one cultural expectation that I have perceived in Brazilian private schools.  Here we go.

As y'all know, I'm a music teacher at a Brazilian private school.  I teach in English (thank God!  Can you imagine the mess it would be if I were to teach in Portuguese??!)  I love my job, and I love the opportunity to influence students, to enjoy music with them, and even sometimes hear them say "that was fun!" or "I learned something!"  One thing I DO NOT like about my job are the performances.  After 3 years of wanting to pull my hair out from the frustration that I experience with these performances, I finally this week realized that it may have something to do with Brazilian culture and expectations.  As an American (and as a parent and educator), I do expect that my children would participate in some kind of performance at their school.  My expectation for preschoolers (age 3 to 5) is that they would hopefully be able to stand in front of a small group of parents and family members and just do something.  Clap.  Move some body part.  Shimmy or shake.  MAYBE move their mouth and have some kind of sound come out.  But for me, just seeing them doing something is enough.  Since I am American (and a parent and educator), I bring these expectations with me to my job here in Brazil.  My first year teaching, I was asked to help the Kindergarten class prepare for their graduation.  Naively, I agreed, making the assumption that it would be a cute little song with some motions performed for the families.  Boy, was I wrong.  I should have known by the professional invitations, professional memory books, and tailored caps and gowns. 

My culture says school performance 

educational, enjoyable for the children, simple

Brazil private school culture says school performance 



School performances (from my perspective) in Brazil are not really about the children.  They are about pleasing the parents (after all, who is paying the bill).  And parents want to see their kids singing and dancing.  Even though their 3 year old doesn't speak in complete sentences and will only obey when bribed with cookies, somehow the expectation is that their little João Felipe Pedro II is going to be AMAZING.  There will be live music! There will be props!  There will be elaborate choreography!  

Obviously, I can't get on board with this.  For 2 years, my mantra has been "developmentally appropriate."  It's not "developmentally appropriate" to expect a preschooler to perform in front of a group of 500+ strangers.  It's not "developmentally appropriate" for young children to be able to sing songs written for adults.  It's not developmentally appropriate for preschoolers to sing and dance simultaneously.  But all my talking has been for nothing.  Because I'm dealing with culture. It is part of the culture to have/value/participate in "shows."  It's part of the culture that celebratory events would be extravagant.  And it's especially part of the culture that you plan for something WAY bigger than you can pull off, with the hopes that it would miraculously come together (and often times, it does!)  All this didn't become crystal clear to me until I had the chance to speak briefly with a Canadian education specialist that has been visiting the schools.  She shared about this same phenomena occurring at other Maple Bear schools in Brazil, and how she has finally had to realize that these expectations are part of the culture.  And even if the expectations are crazy and developmentally inappropriate, they are culture.  We North-Americans working in Brazil can't expect research and logic to trump culture.  I suppose it would be like a Brazilian going to the US and scheduling a major test for 2nd graders on November 1st.  It might be the best time to give a test, the children might be ready, and it might be convenient.  But there's no way that any parent would deny their child the chance to participate in Trick-or-Treating or a Harvest Festival or whatever celebration your family enjoys on October 31st.  

So, here I am.  I'm trying to figure out how to operate within this culture that I have chosen to live in. By no means do I want to try to whip these little 4 year-olds in to shape so they can be singing like Mary Poppins.  And by no means do I want to work myself to the bone in the next month.   I haven't quite figured out how to merge these two cultures, so right now I'm just hanging out in the clash.  But I'll keep you posted.  


  1. Interesting post!
    As a Brazilian I could not agree more with you, but as you said culture is culture!
    Change the perspective and try to understand, for instance; It is very hard to a Brazilian to understand why Americans carry so much about guns and weapons if they live in a safe country, even if this freedon of choise has some many cons!
    I am not intending to compare those totally different points, but is just to exemplify how culture play tricks in peoples minds, that are often not right!

    1. Yes, I'm trying to get there. My challenge is that I'm in charge of this event, and so it is supposed to be representative of my work. And I feel like it's not, because I would never sing Hakuna Matata with 4 year olds! And it's also hard for me to realize that I'm not going to be able to please anybody--not myself, not the teachers, not the kids, not the parents. Arg....

  2. My poor son was soooo freaked out when he had his first recital at 2 yrs old. As an American, I really didn't expect it to be such a show! Like you said, I thought they'd stand in a line, sing a song and do some hand movements. The one here had a full dance with partners and stuff, at 2 years old!! Let's not even get into the costumes and the fact that the entire school was there.

    1. Oh my. Thankfully we aren't doing costumes! One Canadian teacher told me that she taught at a school were there were MANDATORY costumes that cost R$200!!